Local government operates in an increasingly complex landscape which has tested most senior council officers over the last decade, requiring an expansion of the skills needed to lead effectively. Several senior council officers have had additional challenges to contend with, whether prompted by service failures, financial problems, local government reorganisation or major incidents. Uncertainty about local government funding, especially in light of Brexit and Covid-19, means it is likely that more councils will experience challenging circumstances in future.
Senior council officers appreciate that many of these scenarios could happen in any local authority and recognise the need to make sure they would be prepared if something happened in their council. These sorts of situations are often fraught with uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, with no single ‘right’ answer. There is therefore an appetite among senior officers to understand the types of situations other leaders have faced and how they responded to such challenges in order to build a picture of what effective leadership responses to such scenarios looks like. By learning about others’ experiences, they feel they will be able to think about how they can prepare themselves so that they could respond effectively if they ever had to face similar circumstances themselves.
What we already knew
There is a rich academic literature dealing with leadership approaches including hero leadership, traits, behavioural leadership, situational leadership, adaptive leadership, transformational leadership, culturally-contextualised leadership, and the concept of socially constructed leadership. The literature also explores the importance of the relationship between leaders and followers, and how leadership is experienced by followers.
The literature also identifies a number of characteristics and behaviours essential for effective crisis leadership: visible leadership supported by distributed leadership and teamwork, timely communications, providing a clear narrative and assisting in sensemaking, and demonstrating compassion, empathy and authenticity. Leadership response to a crisis needs technical solutions to stabilise the immediate situation, but these are insufficient to tackle long-term organisational challenges, recognising that crises are often not single time-limited events but are drawn out over time – pointing to a need for adaptive and distributed leadership for effective long-term responses.
The last century has seen a shift away from hierarchical public administration focussed on developing and implementing policy towards greater use of competition and an increasing role of network governance to bring together groups of partners across multiple sectors. This highlighted the need for leaders to sharpen their influencing and diplomacy skills.
A growing body of literature explores the role(s) and skills needed for those in 21st century public service, arguing that in addition to the technical and soft skills already required by public servants, the ‘21st century public servant’ needs to be able to see the world differently. This includes working collaboratively across the wider system of the locality and using networks to effect change, weaving together a range of resources to get the most ‘bang for the buck’, being able to craft a compelling narrative to reflect local priorities and inspire others to action, and using creativity to develop new ways of approaching old problems.
Leadership priorities responding to adverse circumstances
Learning from the interviewees’ reflections on their leadership responses to adverse circumstances highlights seven priorities for effective leadership in similar situations.
The priorities for effective leadership in adverse circumstances are:
- Build a solid understanding of the adverse circumstances – Leaders should establish a solid understanding of the adverse circumstances facing their organisation, systematically working through key themes and triangulating information to ensure a comprehensive and accurate assessment.
- Place people at the heart of what you do – Leaders should ensure that people are placed at the heart of the response to the challenges to inspire commitment to the action required for the organisation to recover.
- Assess the extent to which the organisation is traumatised – Early on leaders must assess the extent to which staff and councillors have been traumatised by the adverse circumstances, and respond with appropriate levels of empathy to rebuild trust and commitment to drive the recovery process.
- Adapt your leadership type to your audience(s) – Adverse circumstances require adaptive leadership, with leaders tailoring their approaches to the circumstances they face and their audience. One size does not fit all, and leaders need to draw on a developed sense of self-awareness to adapt their approach to suit the context.
- Be clear about the vision and expectations for the future – It is essential that leaders provide clarity about the vision for the future and how individuals are to contribute to the achievement of priorities so they understand what is being asked of them.
- Embody expected behaviours and model new ways of working – Leaders should be clear about the expectations they have of staff regarding new ways of working and behaviours, and embody these approaches in all that they do to set the tone to staff and mark a change in the way the council does things.
- Welcome external support and challenge – Effective leaders ensure that they are able to draw on a wide range of advice and insight by welcoming support and challenge from outside the organisation.
The types of crises examined in this dissertation (including service failures, financial problems, reorganisation and major incidents) require effective leadership responses.
The existing literature analyses multiple approaches to leadership and identifies a number of characteristics and behaviours essential for effective crisis leadership. Research, including INLOGOV’s ‘21st century public servant’ programme, identified the need for new skills in local areas.
This research, built on interviews with senior officers who have learned from first-hand experiences, highlights several key issues and seven key priorities for leaders in preparing to lead in adverse circumstances.
About the project
This research was a master’s dissertation as part of the MSc in Public Management and Leadership, completed by Kate Herbert and supervised by Dr. Karin Bottom. The programme was funded by Kate’s employer, the Local Government Association. As well as an extensive literature review, the research involved extended interviews with the chief executive and a senior officer at a large unitary authority that has faced significant financial challenges and failures in leadership and governance over recent years. Kate can be contacted at Kate.Herbert@local.gov.uk.